Focusing a viewer’s attention is one of a filmmaker’s primary tasks. On the most basic level, this usually involves deciding what goes in front of the camera, and at what distance: Extreme close-ups function like dictators, whereas panoramic wide shots crammed with details are much more laissez-faire. But sound design plays a crucial role as well, though it’s often only noticed when it’s crafted poorly. There’s a fine art to determining how much incidental background noise will provide a sense of verisimilitude without becoming a distraction. That’s especially true when it comes to scenes in which characters hold a conversation in close proximity to other people who are also talking—we all accept the dramatic convention that unimportant nearby chitchat gets reduced to a barely audible murmur, perhaps without even consciously realizing that it’s a convention. There’s even an industry term for meaningless background dialogue: walla. Apparently, there are actors who specialize in improvising lines to which no viewer will pay any attention.
I recently caught up with Magic Mike XXL, and while the film’s various musical/stripping numbers are joyous and celebratory to a degree that eclipses anything seen in its predecessor, it was a relatively quiet, mundane scene that struck me as nearly unprecedented, due to its unconventional sound design. It occurs when the gang, after stopping at a club run by Mike’s old friend Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), gets driven to their next destination by one of Rome’s strippers, an aspiring musician named Andre, played by Donald Glover. Take a look—and, more importantly, give a close listen—to this clip of Andre talking to Ken (Matt Bomer) as they drive through the night, which has no narrative function whatsoever, yet somehow seems crucial.
Visually, there’s not much to this brief scene. Director Gregory Jacobs, taking over for Steven Soderbergh, shoots the whole thing in a couple of simple two-shots, one from the driver’s side and one from the passenger’s side, plus the head-on shot through the windshield that establishes the layout. Soderbergh, who served as both editor and cinematographer (working under his usual pseudonyms, Mary Ann Bernard and Peter Andrews), employs exactly one dissolve and one cut—the former to indicate that time has passed, the latter to shift the emphasis to Ken for a moment when he discusses his own career. His decision to stick with natural light is a bit risky, as it leaves most of Glover’s face in heavy shadow whenever the actors aren’t illuminated by passing headlights, but that does serve the late-night vibe. Just a couple of guys shootin’ the shit during a long road trip, mostly to ensure that the driver stays awake.
Thing is, there are other people in the car. Mike (Channing Tatum) and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) are sitting in the SUV’s back seat, and presumably Tarzan (Kevin Nash) is in what my family used to call “the way back.” Mike participates in the conversation during the first part of the scene, and that initial shot through the windshield tells us where he and Richie are. We never see them during the second part of the scene, when Andre and Ken are talking—Soderbergh never once cuts to the back seat, possibly because Jacobs didn’t shoot any angles of the back seat. But at least two of the people back there are having their own, completely unrelated conversation at the same time. And it’s loud, by movie standards. Not quite loud enough that you can make out the words (apart from one line that faintly comes through during a lull in the foreground conversation: “Usually in the morning and maybe in the afternoon. Maybe.”), but loud enough to register much more strongly than the usual “walla.” It would be easy to remove in post-production, given this film’s budget, so it must have been a deliberate choice. Why?
Maybe Jacobs or someone in the sound department just felt like making the scene as aurally realistic as possible. But I’ve seen hundreds of scenes in cars with people talking in the front seat while characters in the back seat are temporarily ignored, and I can never remember being so aware of a separate conversation happening offscreen. It reminds me of a hugely unorthodox scene that Kenneth Lonergan wrote for his 2011 film Margaret—a scene that was absent from the version of the film that was released theatrically, but appears in the “extended cut” available on the Blu-ray. Lonergan’s screenplay actually divides the page into two columns, with one column devoted to a conversation between Anna Paquin’s protagonist and her best male friend, and the other column chronicling a simultaneous and completely irrelevant conversation between two strangers who happen to be sitting at an adjacent table in the same diner. As Lonergan shot it, the scene features a cacophony of random voices (including the irrelevant conversation he wrote) for well over a minute—an eternity onscreen—before the sound mix finally resolves on the main characters’ voices.
Lonergan’s insanely ambitious plan for Margaret (which runs over three hours in its extended version) was to show the rest of the world going about its business, blithely unaware of the psychodrama at the film’s ostensible center. Magic Mike XXL isn’t that aggressively experimental, but the sound mix in this scene is getting at something similar, gently reminding us that there are other people in the world. It’s significant that the dialogue, which sounds like it may have been at least semi-improvised at times, eventually lands on Andre’s profession of love for his bare-chested singing routine, which he says he’d keep doing even if he hit it big as a professional musician. The main purpose of the scene appears to underline the idea—present throughout the entire movie, but most clearly articulated here—that Mike and his peers are valuable because they’re genuinely interested in what women desire, as opposed to using women to fulfill desires of their own. A lot of what I loved about XXL has to do with the fact that it’s a male-dominated studio film that’s also casually inclusive, in terms of race, gender, orientation, body type, everything. And that sensibility filters down even to a tiny moment like this one, in which somebody wanted to make sure we knew that just because someone isn’t currently visible doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.